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After a box of pyrotechnics exploded, police began to fire tear gas canisters into the crowd and cleared out the surrounding streets.
After a box of pyrotechnics exploded, police began to fire tear gas canisters into the crowd and cleared out the surrounding streets. (Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

Peace held on in Old San Juan, but not for long.

What started as a monumental protest calling for Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation, descended late Wednesday night into violence and near riots in the island’s capital, as a handful of demonstrators clashed with heavily armed guards near the entrance of the governor’s mansion, known as La Fortaleza, resulting in twelve people injured. There were also several arrests, although authorities did not release specific numbers.

The march yesterday marked the fifth day of ongoing protests demanding for Rosselló to resign, following the leak Saturday of a group chat between the governor and top aides featuring sexist and homophobic remarks, as well as possible instances of illegal activities favoring the current administration. Despite mounting public pressure, Rosselló has said he will not step down.

The Wednesday march —which at the beginning was led by Puerto Rican celebrities such as pop star Ricky Martin and rappers René Pérez (Residente) and Benito Martínez (Bad Bunny), among others— was the biggest protest so far since the political scandal, the worst in Puerto Rico’s recent history, broke out. On Thursday, Fortaleza chief of staff Erik Rolón said that more than 90,000 people showed up at the demonstration, while other sources estimated even higher numbers. 

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By 5:00 p.m., thousands of people were gathered at the grounds in front of the Capitolio, the government’s main legislative building, to begin the mile-long march to San Juan’s historic district. Throughout the late afternoon and into the night, thousands more arrived on foot after parking their vehicles in the outlying sectors of Miramar and Santurce.

At around 7:00 p.m., Martin, Pérez and Martínez addressed the crowd and once again made an impassionate call for Rosselló’s resignation, citing not only the controversial chat as a reason for Rosselló’s dismissal, but also the government’s mishandling of recovery efforts after hurricane Maria hit the island in October 2017.

By 8:00 p.m., most of the celebrities retired from the march, and part of the crowd shifted to the area near La Fortaleza, where tensions began to build up between protesters and the security guard contingent, which included officers from the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections.

Meanwhile, an impressive caravan of motorcycles convened by El Rey Charlie (“Charlie the King”), an underground celebrity and owner of a local bike shop, and numbering some 3,000 according to unofficial estimates, was making its way from the outskirts of San Juan to join the protest.

Until 11:30 p.m., not major incidents had been reported, save for small projectiles thrown by demonstrators. Then, something literally sparked in the middle of the confrontation, flaring tensions to the breaking point. A box of pyrotechnics suddenly flared up amid the contingent of security guards, at some distance from the barricades that divided them from demonstrators. Police later contended that the pyro was thrown by protesters, but various commenters on social media doubted such claims, after seeing video footage.

Shortly before the incident, a protestor was shown lighting up a Molotov cocktail and throwing it at the guards, but the explosive fizzled out before reaching its target. FBI authorities afterwards confiscated five Molotov cocktails, and is reviewing video footage of the various incidents.

After the pyro exploded, police began to fire tear gas canisters into the crowd and cleared out the surrounding streets. While retreating from police, some demonstrators tried to storm the State Department building, ultimately smashing an official portrait of Rosselló, and smashed windows and other property in the area, including a vehicle from local TV station WAPA.

(Xavier J. Araújo)
(Xavier J. Araújo)

Protesters also started a small bonfire on nearby Plaza de Armas, with which they lit up projectiles to throw at police. In total, seven fires were reported throughout Old San Juan.

At 1:00 a.m., the motorcycle caravan arrived at San Juan alongside rappers Residente and Ñengo Flow. Another incident of tear gas was also reported at around this time. “Things will not end here, we will keep going until Rosselló resigns,” Residente told journalists at the site.

Responding on Thursday to the incidents, the governor doubled down on his intention to stay in his seat. “I am committed, now more than ever, to carry out public policy,” he said through a written statement.